So I’d actually heard of Dr. Mütter before reading this book, primarily because of his museum in Philadelphia, which he had commissioned before his death and to which he left his collection of “medical oddities”. The museum has been added to over time, and I believe I first heard of it because my friend Cat told me it had the world’s largest collection of penises. That may or may not be correct, but it does boast over 3,000 “wet specimens”, a multitude of skulls, medical instruments, removed tumors, skeletons with odd deformities and generally weird shit. Definitely a place worth checking out. But I live in Texas, so I read the book instead. I was expecting the museum to be more of a focus, since that’s what I associated with Dr. Mütter, but it really just focused on his career with the museum featured in the last few chapters. Which was great, because Mütter was a fascinating man during an incredible time for medicine, and the book was extremely well-written and researched.
Thomas Dent Mütter was born in the early 1800s, and lost his whole family to disease before he was eight years old. A wealthy gentleman adopted him and provided him with an excellent education, which he made excellent of until his premature death at 48. He was one of the first surgeons to implement ether as anesthesia, he believed in germ theory and the necessity for sterilization, and perhaps most importantly, he viewed his patients as real people, with real problems that he had the capacity to solve. In fact, many of the specimens in his collection when he passed came from freak shows and other places where they were gawked at for a price. Mütter bought them during his lifespan to give them a place where they could be viewed with respect, and possibly even help a doctor learn something new. Mütter had a particular fascination with the relatively new field of “plastics”, which used surgery to improve patients’ cosmetic issues, and therefore improve their lives. Oftentimes, he worked with burn victims whose skin had become so twisted as to affect their day to day activity (in addition to their interactions with others). He could help these people live better, happier lives.
Dr. Mütter’s Marvels was a really fascinating book to read. Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz apparently got permission to work on-site at the museum doing research, and her attention to detail is quite apparent. She does a great job of illustrating exactly how horrifying medicine and surgery could be during Mütter’s time, and how doctors like the well-known obstetrician Meigs (who believed that doctors, as gentlemen, were beyond disease, and therefore refused to believe that they could be passing diseases among their laboring patients) stood in the way of progress, thereby killing thousands. I also loved how she spent a chapter discussing the careers of those that Mütter touched during his time as a doctor and a teacher, showing how his influence continued to help people even after his death.
I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone with a particularly weak stomach, as some of the medical cases are described in excruciating detail, but overall, I think it would appeal to history and medicine nerds alike.